On March 4, 1928, voters approve the formation of Port of Ilwaco. Located on Baker Bay near the mouth of the Columbia River, the Port of Ilwaco is the first of four port districts that will be formed in Pacific County. Long a harbor for fishing boats that harvest salmon from the Columbia River, southern Pacific County residents support the formation of the Port as a means to improve access to the harbor from deep water in the river and to provide a public dock on the bay. The Port will grow to include a breakwater, a dredged moorage basin, and a boatyard. Beginning in the 1980s, the Port will take an increasingly larger role in Ilwaco's community and economic development by hosting a public market at the port, partnering with Grays Harbor College to bring a branch campus to Ilwaco, improving public facilities at the port, and sponsoring a number of annual community events.
Ilwaco: Columbia River Gateway to the Sea
Established in 1876, Ilwaco soon became a port for Columbia River salmon fishermen. The town also served as a transportation hub for Pacific County. Travelers from Oregon or inland Washington could take a steamer on the Columbia, land at Ilwaco, and travel by stage coach, and later by the Ilwaco Railway and Navigation Company (IRNC) train, to the ocean beach resorts on the Long Beach Peninsula. They could also travel to Oysterville or Nahcotta on Willapa Harbor to connect with passenger steamers to Raymond or South Bend. Lumber and cranberries were sent to Ilwaco on the IRNC train.
Land to the west and a sand bar known as Sand Island protected Baker Bay from the ocean winds, but siltation proved to be a vexing problem. Steamers had to wait until the incoming tide increased the water depth enough to allow them to approach Ilwaco's docks. Ilwaco offered the best access in Pacific County to the Columbia River, however, so fishermen, cranberry growers, and lumbermen continued to carry their goods through the port, despite the inconvenience.
All of the facilities on the Ilwaco harbor were privately owned, include all the tidelands not owned by the State of Washington. In 1911 the state legislature had passed the Port District Act, which allowed for the formation of public port districts that could raise revenue through property taxes, bond issues, operating income, and other prescribed means and carry out harbor improvements. In Ilwaco, a port district would carry out dredging projects that required a cooperative effort and build a dock that would be open to the public rather than privately owned.
Forming the Port
On March 4, 1928, voters in the southern third of Pacific County voted 324 to 87 in favor of forming the Port of Ilwaco. The port district encompassed the southern third of Pacific County, including the eastern flank of the Long Beach Peninsula, between what is now Sandridge Road and Willapa Bay, as far north as Oysterville. Stanley Lochrie (1891-1956), president of the First National Bank of Ilwaco, Charles Rogers (b. ca. 1867), owner of the Ilwaco Mill and Lumber Company, and Allen J. Goulter (1880-1953), a farmer, served as the first port commissioners.
That same month, community leaders in Raymond and South Bend, at the north end of Pacific County, were working to organize the Port of Willapa Harbor. Just as they were establishing proposed borders for the new port district, the Port of Ilwaco decided to ask voters for an expansion of their port district. After some discussion, the Port of Ilwaco agreed to abandon their claim to the disputed land (a small area on the Port of Ilwaco's northern boundary), leaving that land available for inclusion in the Port of Willapa Harbor.
In July 1928 the Port hired Earnest A. Middlebrooks, a civil engineer, to prepare a comprehensive plan. The Port District Act required that ports get voter approval for a comprehensive plan before spending any funds. Because voters had to approve any additions or changes to the comprehensive plan, they tended to be far-reaching and included projects that might not have been immediately needed or economically feasible.
Channel, Dock, Warehouse, Airport
Middlebrooks presented his plan in September. It called for seawalls, jetties, piers, quays, slips, gridirons, railroad track spurs, water and electrical services, fire protection, and streets. The commissioners put it before the voters on November 6, 1928, and they approved it with a vote of 533 in favor and 287 against.
On May 30, 1930, the Port dedicated its first dock and warehouse. The Portland Yacht Club sent 15 boats to Ilwaco for the festivities. They were escorted across the Columbia River by five United States Coast Guard boats. The dock and warehouse were dedicated by Oregon Governor, Albin Norblad (1881-1960). The day's program included surfboarding and lifeboat drill exhibitions, motorboat races, and a banquet for 250 guests. Port commissioner Charles F. Rogers and Washington State Senator Fred B. Norman spoke after the governor at the dedication. The Ilwaco Chamber of Commerce gave the Portland Yacht Club members an oil painting of the fishing schooner Columbia, painted by Joseph Knowles.
In the coming decade the Port purchased a number of waterfront lots, worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to maintain a channel on the east side of Sand Island between the Port and deep water in the Columbia River, and built an airport just east of Ilwaco, which appears to have been completed in 1932. In 1934 the Port added fill "for the safe crossing of cattle" (Minutes, January 3, 1934). Today the airport features a 2,080-foot runway that is used by small aircraft.
Although the Port's district encircled the prime oyster grounds of Willapa Bay, the port has primarily developed its facilities on Baker Bay for fishing and recreational boats. The Port of Peninsula, also formed in 1928, serves the oyster growers on Willapa Bay, though that district did not actually abut the bay until a shift in district boundaries in the 1970s. The Port of Ilwaco supported the Port of Peninsula in their efforts to acquire land on the bay and provide facilities for the oyster growers.
Fishing for Food and for Fun
By the 1930s a combination of factors had significantly reduced the Columbia River's salmon runs. Overfishing and upriver habitat loss had led to the decline of the seemingly inexhaustible runs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Smaller fishing operations continued, however. Fishing boats based at Ilwaco brought their catches of salmon, crabs, and other seafood into the port and sold it to the processors situated around the harbor.
Related industries grew up around the port. Besides the seafood processors, businesses like Pacific Mineral Company, which ground shells into a flour that could be used as an agricultural lime, also established themselves in Ilwaco.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s the number of sports fishermen who fished on the Columbia River grew exponentially. According to local historian Nancy Lloyd, sports fishing became "all the rage" after fish traps were removed from the river. The fish traps had limited other types of fishing on the river because they were stationary structures that blocked access to the most favorable fishing areas. As fish runs declined and canneries on the river closed, many of the fish traps were removed.
In August 1940, there were about 1,000 boats on the Columbia between Megler and the river's mouth. After 1950, fishermen and women could compete in two annual derbies on the lower river, one at Chinook, just upstream from Ilwaco, and one at Astoria, on the Oregon side. Prizes ranged from $500 to $1,000, which Lloyd compared to the price of a five-bedroom house advertised in the local paper for $3,750.
By 1953 there were more than 3,000 boats on the river on the last day of the season. Many of these boats came through the Port of Ilwaco, either using the boat ramp or mooring at the floats.
Improving the Port: 1950s and 1960s
As recreational boating grew and the Port's existing facilities aged, the commissioners took steps to improve the Port. In 1948 the Port worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to have a new channel dredged to deep water in the river, on the west side of Sand Island. In 1951 the Port built an 1800-foot pile, timber, and stone dike to protect the moorage basin.
The River and Harbor Act of 1950 authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to build a breakwater, dredge a 20-acre moorage basin behind the breakwater, and maintain the west channel around Sand Island.
The Port agreed to provide land for the work, build access roads, improve the Port's sewer system, and maintain public moorage facilities. The Port also provided land on which the Corps of Engineers could deposit the dredge spoils. Although the Port did not own all of the land surrounding the moorage basin, the commissioners authorized the placing of the dredge spoils along the waterfront, thereby building up all of the lots behind a seawall.
Eventually the Port purchased all of the waterfront parcels surrounding the moorage basin. The Port owns 20 acres of onshore lands, 40 acres of tidelands, and an additional 10 acres of land built up by dredge spoils.
The Corps of Engineers completed their work in December 1957 and the Port served as a center for a thriving recreational boating, sport fishing, and commercial fishing and crabbing center in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963 the federal Area Redevelopment Administration gave the Port $146,000 for a small boat basin, increasing moorage spots available.
The Boldt Decision and Fishing Conflicts
The 1970s brought tremendous change to the Port. In 1974 federal judge George Boldt (1903-1984) issued his decision in the treaty rights case U.S. v. Washington. He ruled that Indian tribes that had signed treaties with the federal government retained rights to one-half of the harvestable fish available each year. Since the commercial and sports fishermen were then taking more than half of the harvestable amount, fishing seasons were shortened to make more fish available to tribal fishermen.
The seasons set for trolling and gillnetting in 1976 did not coincide with the height of salmon runs coming into the Columbia River, thereby drastically reducing the number of fish available to non-Indian fishermen fishing off the Washington and Oregon coasts. On June 24, 1976, a group of 28 trollers, members of the West Coast Trollers Association, blockaded the entrance to the Port of Ilwaco. The blockade later dispersed without incident, but, according to Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander James Cushman, they "wanted to get their message across and they did" (Lloyd, "Boldt Decision").
On July 1, 1976, trollers went out to fish, caught 40 salmon, and sold them to local fish processors. They were served orders to appear in court on contempt charges. In August 1976 the same situation faced the gillnetters at Ilwaco but an agreement reached with the tribes extended the season by two days, allowing the gillnetters access to more fish. A second blockade occurred in June 1977, when again the troller fleet closed the Port of Ilwaco entrance in protest of fishing regulations resulting from the Boldt decision. Local fishermen also picketed at the Port of Ilwaco.
Changes and Challenges
Since the 1970s, salmon populations have remained low due to a variety of factors, included historic overharvest, upstream habitat loss, and climatic disruptions, such as El Nino. At the Port of Ilwaco, the number of charter fishing boat companies has declined from 130 in 1978 to 9 in 2010. The number of recreational boat owners mooring at the Port also declined precipitously in the late 1970s and early 1980s, significantly reducing the Port's revenue.
In 1984, with the Port facing dire economic circumstances, the State of Washington gave the Port a block grant of $500,000 to improve its facilities. The Port joined with the Ilwaco City Council to form the Ilwaco Basin Board to manage the project. The state money allowed the Port to reduce moorage fees and add more slips, for a total of 816.
To make up for declining salmon catches, the fishing fleet based in Ilwaco has diversified. Some hold fishing licenses for more than one fishing area, including Willapa Bay to the north and the Oregon coast to the south. They have also shifted to other species, including Albacore tuna, Dungeness crab, salmon, Pacific pink shrimp, and bottom fish. In 2003, almost 14 million pounds of tuna were landed at the port, which was worth more than the salmon, shrimp, and bottom fish catches combined. Salmon only accounted for 4 percent of the value of fish landed that year.
The Port of Ilwaco Today
In the 1980s, port commissioners realized Ilwaco's future prosperity would not be based solely on fishing. The Port began to develop its onshore properties to encourage tourism. Over the next 30 years the Port transformed its onshore land from a primarily industrial waterfront to a working fishing port that is also integrated with the local community. The Port attracts visitors to Ilwaco with enhanced recreational boat facilities, hotels, restaurants, a promenade, retail shops, a seasonal farmer's market, and numerous annual events. On a centrally located lot, the Port built a pavilion available for public and private events. A boatyard facility provides an onshore space for boat maintenance and repairs. The Port's travel lift hoists boats of up to 40 tons out of the water.
In 2003 a grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board and the Rural Economic Vitality Program of Washington State Department of Transportation's Highways and Local Programs Office funded a major improvement project on the Port's onshore land and the city's adjacent streets. Waterfront Way, the shoreline promenade, was repaved, landscaped, and decorative lighting added, Howerton Way was repaved and sidewalks, lighting and trees added. The Port also completed water, wastewater, electricity, telecommunications, and storm drainage improvements.
In 2006 Grays Harbor College opened the Columbia Education Center at the Port of Ilwaco. The college had outgrown its old space in town and looked to the open space at the Port for room to expand. Programs offered include GED preparation, English as a Second Language classes, an Adult Basic Skills program, certificate programs in software applications and medical records clerical, and associate degree programs in business and for transfer to four-year programs. The center serves about 200 students per year.
The Water Resources Development Act of 2007 included a provision for a study of the causes of siltation in Baker Bay. If it is determined that federal navigation projects, such as the jetties a the mouth of the Columbia River had caused increased siltation in the bay, then the federal government would help with mitigation, including dredging to maintain adequate channels between the Port of Ilwaco and deep water in the river. The study has not been completed as of 2010.
The Port has also developed a number of festivals and community events that draw visitors to town. Visitors can participate in the annual blessing of the fleet, enjoy art walks or the farmer's market in the summer, and hear great music at the Blues & Seafood festival. The Port of Ilwaco has assisted local businesses as they make use of the local environment's assets for the past 80 years. It has spearheaded projects that require a cooperative effort and led the way in developing Ilwaco into a tourist destination that draws on the region's natural beauty to attract visitors.